Due Respect

If you’re going to do anything with the idea of superheroes, and you live in the US, then the first thing you must do is decide how you are going to handle Superman.

The Last Son of Krypton is an American icon, famous around the globe for his unmatched strength, in body and moral character. This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of his first appearance. Since then, the Man of Steel has been joined by legions of other heroes with extraordinary abilities, characters created by both his own publishing house and their rivals at Marvel. Every conceivable archetype has been filled – soldier, detective, mercenary, scholar, teacher, wizard and countless others. But in spite of the objections that his creed or powers or character are too simple,  Superman was, and in many minds still is, the first and most prominent superhero in existence.

Different stories with superheroes deal with Superman in different ways. The character was never created because there were real superheroes in the world already. The character was written about but is referenced only in passing. There’s someone with the abilities and character of Superman (a Superman analog) who exists in the world already, and thus the world didn’t need a fictional version. Or the story takes place before the Superman story existed or had enough popularity to be widely known. There are almost as many different solutions to the Superman issue as there are stories about superheroes. But if superheroes are your theme, then sooner or later Superman gets a nod of some sort.

Part of that is basic human nature. People want to see the things they like and they like to see those things in new and different lights. This is the origin of a thousand Star Wars vs. Star Trek and DC vs. Marvel geekfests. But it’s also due to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Many early superheroes have their origins in Jewish history and traditions, which are rife with decidedly superhuman goings on. But the American cultural legacy doesn’t include much in the way of superhuman activity- except, of course, for Superman and his ilk. So we expect something analogous to Superman to serve as the foundation for similar traditions in fiction.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

Superman is the embodiment of the flying brick archetype, founder of the garish superhero costume tradition and epitome of the hiding in plain sight tactics so many superheroes favor. When Siegel and Schuster first put Clark Kent together they created something truly enduring, and since the typical American will always associate Superman with superheroes in some way, if they plan to write in the superhero genre then they owe it to themselves and to their readers to be ready to say something about Superman.

In the Project Sumter universe Superman and other superheroes are problematic figures. While all the luminaries of the DC and Marvel lines exist there, for a myriad of reasons they’re not going to be referenced much by name. However, astute readers have probably already caught on to the fact that Helix, and many other talents, don’t like the portrayal of superheroes in American comics much, if only because they create so many untrue, and potentially dangerous ideas of what talents are and how they work. (There will be much more on this theme in Water Fall than there has been in Heat Wave. Assuming I remember it and can find the space.)

On top of the misconceptions many people will have about talents vs. superpowers, there’s the little fact that many superheroes are vigilantes, something that Project Sumter actively discourages. The government doesn’t just want private citizens to stay off it’s turf and not make them look bad – the fact is, a single individual, operating independently, is limited in their reach, their effectiveness, their knowledge of what’s going on and how to best deal with it and in their ability to contain dangerous situations and keep them from endangering others. Solo crime-fighting as a hobby just isn’t going to work very well, even if you do have a genius IQ and incredible funding. Vigilante crime-fighting teams are starting to look dangerously like an extragovernmental army and giving them all powerful and difficult to anticipate abilities doesn’t make things look any better.

As I worked on building Project Sumter’s world I kept pushing hard against the typical superhero ‘flying brick’ mentality. Most talents are as vulnerable as normal people to normal dangers and their powers have more limits and potentially bad side effects than those used by comic book superheroes. One reason was that I wanted powers that clearly acted as some poorly understood addendum to known laws of physics. But another was, the farther I was from stock superheroes the less I had to worry about fighting Superman’s shadow.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t gotten a nod or two. When you’re playing around in territory that has been heavily trod before you, the founders and trailblazers of that archetype in your culture deserves your respect. Part of that respect is finding your own way to tell your stories and part of that is giving you defining stories and characters their due respect.

Author’s Obligations: Respect

“The New York Times arrives on your doorstep and shouts at you, ‘Are you a decent person? Are you a good citizen? Are you smart? Then you will read me.’ The Post has no such presuppositions.” 

– Tucker Carlson, on the difference between the New York Times and New York Post

There aren’t that many different things you can point to and say, “An author needs to do this.”  Writing is more an art than a science, so there’s definitely a lot more wiggle room for interpretation than in many other professions. Of course, obligations goes beyond getting training and studying the field. Qualifications is separate from obligations.

When I started writing these posts, I thought I could cover all the conceivable obligations of an author in one sitting. As it turns out, it took four. First, the author and the audience. Then, the author and the story. The first two were tied together with enrichment. The last… well, we’ll get to that in a second.

For the author, respect is assuming that the audience can read your story and be enriched by it.

Okay, so this sounds incredibly simplistic. And it is. It’s entirely possible that you will never have any difficulty fulfilling this obligation, particularly as a fiction author. For those of us who are on the bottom of the stack, and I’m guessing that’s most of you although if Stephen King is reading this I’d certainly love to hear from him, assuming that you need to do everything you can to get your reader’s attention and sell them on reading your story seems like a natural thing. After all, when you’re an unknown you can’t expect total strangers to invest in your book sight unseen. But in the publishing industry there is sometimes a subtle but strong undercurrent of condescension or outright superiority in tone and content.

The quote at the top of this post speaks to this attitude. On the one hand, The New York Times is a very old, well established newspaper. On the other hand, the fact that something is well established does not, in and of itself give it a stance of moral superiority. Neither does the fact that the editors are graduates of Ivy League colleges or the fact that they are trained journalists who are routinely given access to the highest levels of power in the nation and sometimes in the world. No matter how lofty your pedigree or connections, no matter how you think your studies and training have equipped you to observe and write, none of these things make your audience obligated to read what you have written. Your skill in turning a phrase or affecting people’s emotions does not make your work a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. In short, you must earn the attention of your readership, you cannot demand it or worse, feel you are entitled to it.

Respect is showing your audience that you are approaching them as equals, as people who are able to read and understand what you have written, who don’t need their hands held through every point of the story or need to be beaten over the head to find the “correct” interpretation of characters or events. This doesn’t mean you throw things at your audience that you know they can’t deal with. No one expects eight year-olds to understand calculus, but a good mathematician doesn’t hold that against them. Likewise, you must accept your audience for what they are and speak to them where they are. That is respect.

Respect is also accepting that not every story is for every audience. This is a particularly egregious fault of the so-called ‘literary’ author, who feel that their stories must be written and read or something is fundamentally missing from society. The burden is on you, as an author, to write stories that speak to your audience where they are. It’s okay to have a clear cut idea of what you want your story to be about or what point you want it to make when you sit down to write it. That, after all, is the foundation of enrichment (more on that in a second), but if you’re not taking the steps to understand your audience and making it relevant to them you’re not showing respect.

Finally, while you can offer your audience anything you want as enrichment, you can show them any kind of work from the depressing but eye-opening 1984 to the exciting and mind sharpening adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but whether the audience takes away what you give them or not is up to them. You have to leave the decision of whether your story was worth their time in their hands – after all, you wouldn’t want a chef telling you how much you enjoyed your meal, would you? The work of an author is much the same. It may be a good and vital part of a reader’s life, but they’re also entitled to decide what they make of it. Authors have to respect that.

In short, you audience is there to receive solid, entertaining and meaningful stories from you. Your job is to write the best story you can and let them decide if it meets those criteria. When they know that you’ve done that, then that is respect.